You know it’s spring

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It’s starting, finally, to feel like spring.  I saw daffodils in Prospect Park this morning, and even one dark tree flowering all over with pink.  But for Koreans, one of the earliest and best signs of spring is the appearance of 냉이, naegni, or shepherd’s purse.  Koreans love wild greens, and naengi is one of the most special (and most expensive).  You can make a namul, or wilted salad, out of it, blanching it and dressing it with salt, sesame oil, and sesame salt.  But my favorite way to eat it is in a deep, pungent, doenjang-jjigae, or soybean paste stew.  It has a strong, woodsy fragrance that just wafts over you as you spoon up the salty stew.  And if you eat it in that doenjang-jjiae, as we did, after a couple of hours of planting cucumber seeds on a Korean produce farm, it just tastes that much better.

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My sister’s friend Nancy had invited us to join her on her parents’ farm in Walden, New York, about an hour and a half north of the city.  Her parents, in their retirement, had decided to start growing Korean produce.  Her father was an economist, her mother, a long-time small business owner.  And now they are farmers!  The romance of that is totally intoxicating to me.

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It was too early to be planting directly into the ground, but their greenhouses were full of seedlings—garlic, giant scallions (actually a different vegetable from the green onions we all know), garland chrysanthemums, and peppers.  Our job was to start the cucumbers, placing one little cucumber seed in each square of soil.  It should have been boring, but it wasn’t.  It was soothing to sit there in the sun, poking and covering the seeds with a pair of tweezers.  By the last frost in early May, the cucumber seedlings will be ready to be transferred.

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Even though all we did was stomp around the farm a bit in our rubber boots, and then sit for hours poking seeds into squares of dirt, when it was time for lunch, we had that sharp appetite that comes from working outside.  Nancy’s mother had picked the naengi, washed it very carefully, and added it to the strong stew.  She’d also made bulgogi, thinly sliced beef marinated in a slightly sweet, soy-sauce marinade, served with fresh greens from the greenhouses and wonderful pancakes stuffed with vegetables and shrimp.  I ate ravenously and almost with a feeling of happy righteousness, knowing that I’d done some small thing towards growing food.

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Nancy said we should come back in the summer, when everything is growing riotously.  She’d been worried there would be nothing to see on the farm when the earth was still bare.  I’ll happily go anytime they’ll have me.  I went home with garland chrysanthemum and scallion seedlings, a little baggie of shepherd’s purse, and Korean radish pickles that Nancy’s mom had preserved in a giant barrel in their barn—very stinky and very tasty.  But I’m glad that I came when I did, when everything felt possible.

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2 Responses to “You know it’s spring”

  1. nancy Says:

    good post and photos. you can see my mom’s handy tool. puahaha…
    and yes, you guys will have to come visit again!
    HAPPY BIRTHDAY!

  2. Leslie Says:

    So it IS possible to suddenly become a farmer after retirement. Maybe I will keep that in my plans even though I’ve never farmed a day in my life.

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